There is no getting away from it – in this internet era we like to think it’s all about the technology, but it’s not, and it never really has been.  At the 2012 summit this week, I had the pleasure of listening to David Walmsley, Multichannel Development Director for Marks & Spencer, as well as Jamie Nordstrom President of Nordstrom direct.  Representing close to $20B in combined revenue, both speakers had quite a bit to say about their road to omni-channel commerce.  While much was said about the how’s and why’s of their strategies, more than any single factor, they both came back to people as the cornerstone of all of their efforts.

People, both customers and staff offer the greatest challenge and opportunity for commerce leadership. Marks & Spencer and Nordstrom are venerable, long term champions of their customer.  Despite the changes in technology and ecommerce systems, both of these titans come back to a rigorous understanding of their customer as the razor blade against which they test a variety of ecommerce strategies.  If an investment fails to improve the experience of their customers – from point of sale systems on through to integrated web to store technologies- then they do not pass the exacting standards of either M & S or Nordstrom.  In both cases, it is a strategy that is brilliant in its simplicity and yet very hard to accomplish.

On the flip side is how these companies use the talent (i.e. people that they have on staff).  While empowering a store clerk (or colleague as M & S calls them) is a given, the integration of online and in store teams has proven to be challenging.  As new sales avenues open up, small agile teams are built, and then over time integrated back into the core line of business.  Not easy.  Different channels compete for revenue, success and recognition.  Uncomfortable.  And behind it all, teams compete for corporate dollars to achieve their goals.  This can get vicious.  Both companies have travelled the difficult path of defining who owns the customer and who has title to the customer experience.  Mr. Nordstrom said it best when asked who owns the customer.  His reply?  “All 50,000 Nordstrom employees.”

So that’s it.  Omni-channel for all of its buzz-wordy sex appeal really means that the more things change the more they stay the same: Retail is in the end, people, offering goods and services to other people.  Same as it ever was.  And the one who does that best, wins.